Remembering Francis Takahashi

He kept telling me to call him Francis. I’d manage it in the moment, but it didn’t feel right. I would always eventually revert to addressing Takahashi Shihan as “Sensei.”

Takahashi Sensei passed away this morning, Saturday, November 11th, 2023 — one of my favorite people — leaving a bigger-than-life hole in the fabric of the Aikido universe.

[Update: See the Memorial Service notes at the end, following the service for Takahashi Sensei, 10 December, 2023.]

Aiki Royalty

In January of 2010 I participated in the Bridge Seminar at Jiai Aikido in San Diego — a timid 6th kyu student. It was my first big seminar, and I was one of only a handful of white belts on the mat. My fervent hope was that I could hide out in the back and not commit some heinous breach of etiquette during the 5-day international event.

Only moments after I stepped onto the mat to warm up, Cat Strada Sensei, the dojo cho, approached me.

“Francis Takahashi is here, He wants to meet you. He reads your blog.”

“Ooh, cool! Somebody actually reads my blog?” I thought.

Soon we were introduced, and chatted for a few minutes before classes began. He seemed like a really nice guy, this random fan. Gracious, thoughtful. I was honored to think anyone even knew about my blog, never mind actually followed it and wanted to meet me.

Later, talking with some of the senpai from my dojo I mentioned the interaction, and learned something interesting:

“Oh my God. Do you know who that is? Takahashi Shihan is Aiki royalty!”

Acck! I’d had no idea who I’d been talking to.

A whole lot of Aikido experience in one place at the San Diego Bridge Friendship Seminar at Jiai Aikido in 2018.
Left to right: Hiroshi Ikeda Shihan, Francis Takahashi Shihan, Frank Doran Shihan, Greg O’Connor Shihan, Morihiko Murashige Shihan, Christian Tissier Shihan

A Storyteller and Witness to History

On another day during that event I’d brought a sack lunch, and was staying at the dojo to rest and eat during the break. Takahashi Sensei stayed too. I didn’t want to bother him, but he seemed inclined to talk. For over 2 hours he essentially gave me a private seminar on Aikido history, philosophy, and Aikido organization politics.

Being so new to the art I didn’t have a context for a lot of the information, so I probably remember only 5% of what he had to say, but I remember his warmth and generosity as clearly as if it were yesterday.

Since that time, at various Bridge Seminars and Aiki Summer Retreats, I had the pleasure of talking with Takahashi Shihan — or just listening, sitting at the edge of a group, listening to the elders of the community exchanging their stories.

Takahashi Shihan, regaling his admirers at the Aiki Summer Retreat in Quincy, California, 2013

A Youthful Spirit

Once, at a lunch break, he gave me a bottle of liniment that fixed my sore knee so I could train the rest of the day. Amazing stuff. I still use it to this day. Another time, when his pulse oximeter wasn’t working, I loaned him mine – half because he actually needed one, and half to let him know he wasn’t alone in needing one.

While his body wasn’t up to training it was clear his heart and mind were still fully involved in the art. He had a youthful spirit. Somehow, in spite of what I saw in front of me, Sensei sitting alongside the mat with his cane, it always felt like I was talking with someone much younger: a surfer or musician in his 20s.

Hanging out with Francis Takahashi and Michael Friedl Shihans at the Aiki Summer Retreat at Feather River College, Quincy, California, in 2013

Keeping Connections Alive

In recent years, every few days, or few weeks — it varied — Takahashi Sensei would send me something via Facebook Messenger. It might be an article or video: the health benefits of oatmeal, a friendship between a dog and a pelican, art, nature, animals … rarely, politics. And martial arts and Aikido, of course. Quite often it would be music videos — a favorite song or performance.

One of the many music videos Takahashi Sensei shared.

I would respond sometimes, but he never seemed inclined to chat, beyond a light comment, usually followed by “Trust all is well. Mahalo and blessings to everyone. Francis”

Optimistic and Determined

A notable exception was in late June of 2022, when Sensei messaged me with a question:

“Just covering my bases in case Hawaii move fizzles, is San Diego still hospitable to a wheelchair aikidoist?”

Moving to Hawaii didn’t work out, and since that time I had always half expected to show up at class and find him at the dojo, ready to train.

Greg O’Connor Sensei looking on as Francis Takahashi and Frank Doran Shihans share some hilarious inside joke at the Aiki Summer Retreat at Menlo College in 2011

Make Someone’s Day Better

Seeing Greg O’Connor Shihan with Takahashi over the years I admired their friendship. O’Conner Sensei was always making sure Takahashi was able to get to seminars, and assisting him with whatever was needed.

Once I commented to O’Connor Sensei about what a lovely person Takahashi was.

“Francis Takahashi wakes up every morning wondering how he can make someone’s day better,” he said.

That rang true, and it stuck with me. It’s an admirable way to live.

“Be the reason someone has a better day,” on the back window of my car.

I think one of the nicest ways we can remember someone is to embody something we admired about them, to continue bringing that into the world. Waking up every morning wondering how we can make someone’s day better is as good a way as I can think for honoring Francis Takahashi’s memory.

Memorial Service

I just participated, via Zoom, in the memorial service for Francis Takahashi Sensei, 10 December, 2023. It was a beautiful and powerful Soto Zen Buddhist service, conducted mostly in Japanese, with chanting, cymbals, and chimes, at the Sozenji Buddhist Temple in Montebello, California. I’m sorry I did not catch the name of the monk leading the service. Family were present, of course, and many friends from the Aikido community.

A few words in English from the service that stuck with me, quoted as closely as I can:

“Caring for people,
Caring for students,
Dedicating his life to Aikido.
He embodied his [… life?] this way.”:

“Each of your students will carry on your legacy
In the work they do,
According to their memories.”

“The Buddha is not outside ourselves, but within us.
The same with people – Takahashi.
When people die we keep them within us.”

Participants were invited to come forward and share memories, and many did. There were cherished memories, tears, and humorous recollections.

The monk said, near the end, “This is probably the most spontaneous service I’ve ever done.” That was probably appropriate. 🤍

A cropped screen shot from Zoom, showing the interior of the Sozenji Buddhist Temple during the memorial service for Francis Takahashi.
Via Zoom: the interior of the Sozenji Buddhist Temple during the memorial service for Francis Takahashi.

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